Monday, February 27, 2017

Stepping Carefully on a Sensitive Topic

My part of the world was settled first by Native Americans then quite a bit later by French and English fur traders.  That's our History.  The sensibilities of that era would totally be OK with this truck I noticed parked in front of the courthouse on a fine spring day.  Modern sensibilities?  Mmmm, a little borderline. Steel traps give almost anyone a twinge.

OK, and as a car ornament a steel trap that says YOUR LAST STEP does seem a bit excessive...

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Odd ones from Here and There

The "here and there" today is mostly from our July road trip.  The eastern third of Wisconsin is prime hunting ground for "Tree shaped Tombstones".

A couple from Sheboygan.

This one is remarkable for having the lettering painted white.  Obviously this monument is still being cared for by the family.  Note the fresh flowers.  So did all or many of these have original paint?  One would imagine that a few traces would have been preserved on other examples.  I mean, we still find traces of paint on the ruins of Roman walls, albeit in more optimal situations for preservation.

I'm not even going to guess on this one.  It is a weird hybrid of some sort.  The lower turn of the century monument remembers the Zelle family.  The upper red granite "log" is a style I usually see in 1930s markers.  Was Luecke a daughter who for some reason did not get buried with her husband?  

I have seen planters as separate elements in a memorial plot but this is the first time I have seen one "built in".  Note also the blank scroll.  Where are the names?

Here we have a magnificent specimen.  It was near Beaver Dam Wisconsin.  I suspect it is a local style as I had spotted something similar as we sped past another nearby cemetery.  Rain clouds were threatening and stopping at each opportunity was not in the cards that day.  We did pull in for this one.  I guess it fits into the "Stack of Logs" category but is more elaborate than any I have seen to date.  Darn I wish the craftsmen who did this kind of work would put their names on somewhere inconspicuous so that I could give them the posthumous credit that they richly deserve.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bag and Tag 2017

Another build season, another robot is "in the bag".  Build Team hands the keys over to the drive and software teams.  My crew gets a well deserved week off.

How will it do?  Unknown.  But it appears to be hard to break and easy to repair.   

Not everything we did worked out perfectly, and there is still the chance of catastrophic failure. We might for instance have the climbing mechanism chew through our rope as happened once in practice.  Probably a three foot drop onto its snout would be the real test...

We finished the season with an unserious practice.  Anybody who wanted to could drive the robot.  No collisions but you can sure tell the difference between our novices and our veteran drivers from last year.  We finished the build season in high spirits, unlike last year when we had some needless High School High Drama to contend with.

Goodnight robot.   See you soon.

Tournaments are still a month off so robot posting will be scaled back for a bit.

Monday, February 20, 2017

FIRST Robotics 2017 Build Season Week 6 - Wrapping Up.

Final week of robot building. We do have Monday and Tuesday of the following week but that's not a good time to be finding and solving major problems.

In the week concluded we did find and solve some minor ones.

A careful read of the rules suggested that depending on the mood of the judges our robot's frame might be a quarter inch too long.  A hat tip to the build team who were able to make the modification in under an hour, and actually made the frame cleaner and stronger in the process.

It is very helpful to occasionally test drive the near finished product.  We had done careful measuring to set up our gear pick up and delivery systems at optimal heights.  But in testing an odd thing happened.  When our winch mechanism was not mounted the gears did not slide into their designated carrier easily.  And when it was, they did not come out cleanly. Hmmm.  Much pondering at, as is universal, the end of a work session.  There even seemed to be some contribution from the slightly uneven floor of our century old build HQ.

But the real issue was the weight of the winch.  When it is off the robot is "nose heavy" and tips forward.  When on, "tail heavy" and tipping up a critical quarter inch.  Sigh.  Still time to do something.  Various somethings were debated.  We wanted a solution that would accommodate the wear and tear that is to be expected on the arena elements in a rough and tumble event. Springs don't always stay perfect and the retaining spike could get beaten up.

Solution: a tiny rectangle of polycarbonate attached to a little servo.  

When the gear is released this should push its lower edge forward and make a clean drop.  I met with some resistance on this addition.  The originator of our simplistic gear release wanted to assume that the springs at the event would be forgiving.  But as I explained, the robot is only as strong as its weakest part, and the difference between victory and defeat could be a single gear handled cleanly or dropped.  As the pressure has stepped up in the last week or two I have become a continuous font of platitudes.

By Friday we were done enough to:

Run a mock inspection of the robot.

Make a very nice set of bumpers.

Do drive practice on a section of carpet we rolled out to better simulate the actual field surface. 

Put on signage for our much appreciated sponsors.

And Saturday was mostly frosting.   Oh, we had a minor issue with our rope grabber missing too often.  But it turns out that the red duct tape we had applied for visibility and general safety had frayed and balled up from multiple use.  Replacing it, probably often, with slick, thinner electrical tape solved the problem.  Looks pretty safe, no?

We finally have the ball shooter mounted and are trying out various feed systems.  We should have been at this point two weeks ago.  As our build space did not have high enough ceilings we took the robot down to the loading dock....and set as our target a trash can balanced on a forklift!  I really think that for a FIRST robotics team we are a bit weird.

We probably only have an hour's worth of real work to do before we bag it.  So even though the kids have Monday off of school we will forgo extended practice hours.  Our Pit Crew motto applies from this point forward.  "The Robot is Always Ready".

At least that is our hope.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A New Academic Experience at Age 60.

I started kindergarten at age 4.  Hey, my parents had a house full of rambunctious boys and were very motivated to pack us off to Lowell Elementary as soon as they could swing it.

After going straight through from that point to the end of Med School I continued to regularly take CME classes.  Upon retirement I went directly into the local Tech School and had an enjoyable fall semester learning things.

But recently I did something that I had never before done or even considered in a 56 year run as a student.  I dropped a class.

In my Carpe Diem mode post medicine I see time differently.  One one level I have an abundance of it.  Just ask my better half who regards me lolling about the house as an affront to the Natural Way of Things.  But from another perspective we never know how much time we have.  Decades.  Years. Or maybe not.  Time should be considered precious as we really don't know how great a supply of it we actually have.

So when the pneumatics course I was signed up for did not develop as I had anticipated I just dropped it.  I quit.  And that is something I rarely do in any path I have set my feet to.

The instructors were nice guys and the subject matter interesting if not immediately practical for me.  But when much of the learning is on line and the "in the lab" skills test outs appeared perfunctory it got me to wondering if it was the best use of my time.  I guess I am still Old School enough to prefer traditional teaching methods.  Like we had in School.  In Old times.

I might start up classes again in the summer or more likely fall sessions.  But short term this frees me up to do more with robotics and to get back to studying Italian in prep for a spring trip.

Not something most people can say they have become in retirement.  Tech School Dropout.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

FIRST Robotics 2017 - Build Season Week Five / 2


With our complicated "Build Two" strategy the time frame for what has to happen and when is important.   You can only fiddle around with peripheral stuff for so long.  When the count down gets short you have to tackle the major issues.

We have to have to know what kind of winch we will use to actually finish the frame.  The robot is effectively built around it.  The disappointing test run of what was supposed to be an infallible system set us back.  Some engineering tweaks have ensued but a final successful test has not been done yet.

But things had to get done.

So.  Thursday: 

We have decided to take on Faith that the winch will work in its current form.   I put a couple of kids to work building frame elements to accommodate it.

A light turnout for work crew tonight.  Especially on the ball shooter.  One guy intensely thinking.  Whiffle balls litter the floor.  Periodically he makes an adjustment to the mechanism and fires off a few more.  His hat matches the whiffle balls.

Steady progress.  This is the practice machine and so is still a bit rough.  But at the end of the night I stare at the robot.  And courtesy of its camera, the robot stares back.

Friday Another night of a short work crew.  We share a large percentage of the team with various music programs so when there is a big Band/Choir extravaganza the robot comes in second.  We continue to struggle a bit.

This little widget is called a Lovejoy coupler.  It was part of our solution to the winch problem and allows just enough play in the system to overcome any minor misalignment.  The problem is that it added two inches of length and now the winch motor bumps up against something that can't be moved.  Much dismay and kludgy theories but so far no solution.  I am feeling neither The Love nor The Joy tonight.

Saturday  All hands on deck.  We have two coaches who are there all the time.  And four "part timers" who help as work permits.  Three of the four turned up on Saturday and Stuff Got Done.  By the kids it should be noted, but a degree of supervison on light to moderate mechanical matters helps a lot.

Mounting the alarming winch motor on the Competition machine.  You really try to avoid drilling and grinding on a machine with active electronics because getting shavings in the wrong places makes for an expensive failure.  But on occasion there is no choice. 

The cure for shavings.  A careful vacuuming up, sometimes followed by a damp paper towel.  

Build season is an intense experience and Week Five is the worst.  Fatigue has set in but the final burst of energy that comes from panic is still a few days away.  We made it through.  It helps to remember that we had goals at the beginning of the campaign.  By the end of Week Five we wanted to have a machine that reliable handled the plastic gears and that could climb the needed distance in under fifteen seconds.

And have a practice machine that was mechanically identical if not as pretty.

End of Week Five.  It runs.  It picks up and drops off gears.  It climbs in between 6 and 7 seconds.

No time to rest but with a strong effort today we are back on schedule.

Oh, and the pesky ball shooter project.  I had to put it "on hold" for Saturday morning.  We needed all the hands working on the competition robot and the darn whiffle balls are a distraction.  But by afternoon the lads were back to work on it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

FIRST Robotics 2017 - Build Season Week Five / 1

Crunch Time.

The main reason we did well last year was that we had our robot done before deadline.  At the start of Week Five you have 14 build sessions left, assuming you don't work on Sundays.  Our goal is to have everything mechanical done and running at the end of this week, allowing us a full week plus a couple of days to trouble shoot and to coordinate the rather different tasks of Hardware and Software.  Will we pull it off?

It is going to be a tough slog.  Probably one or more critical systems will fail under real world testing. We had this happen last year with a plastic gear being ground apart in the middle of Week Five.  In a sense we had it happen again already this year when our hugely over engineered lift winch let us down.  Or more properly, did not pick us up.  Hopefully it is just a damaged bearing.  Otherwise the detailed calculations of two smart mechanical engineers will be proven Wrong!

So, on we go.  Time to fine tune and finish everything on our Practice Machine while doing best quality artistic level work on our Competition Machine.  In theory all components can simply be slid from one to the other at the proper moment.....


No real progress on the winch but a new coupling ordered and should be here Wednesday.

The dubious winch motor now is marked as such.  Although the exact diagnosis remains unclear.  Excess friction should have caused an increased current draw and some combination of hot wires and/or blown fuse.  But when free running it seems healthy.  We have some dark suspicions....

A surprising breakthrough by the ball launcher team.  This thing actually does fire those whiffle balls quite well, bouncing them off the ten foot ceiling.  If it can be fed and controlled it might really work.  A fun side line for them to play with whether it turns out or not.  Tip for other new teams building this sort of thing.  Use old, worn wheels.  New ones need to be broken in to get roughed up and give better traction.  A side note.  Our temporary shortage of 80/20 fasteners is explained by this elaborate test frame!


The ball launcher is now cut down to a managable size and is reliably putting it up to the required height.  If we can work out a decent feeder system it might actually be a worth while component.

Here are two new things from the night.

On the left is our battery box.  It has to be sturdy, compact and accessable.  The holding strap across the top is a strip of polycarbonate.  It is held on with bright red Velcro.  A nice bit of work.  On the right is a sinister looking object.  This is version 3.0 of our rope grabber.  It seems the previous multi tined version had a tendency to spool up the rope so that we were in effect winding a 4 or 5 inch shaft from our 1 and 1/8 starting point.  This single "comb" wraps it much tighter.  It takes nine revolutions to reach the desired height versus 4.5.  That should in theory double the torque.  This plus an improved motor coupling "should" solve our problem by Thursday.  We also switched from "some rope I had in my garage" to a thin but strong paracord in our team colors.  That got us up to about 10 rotations to climb and with a rating of 550 pounds per strand I think our 120 pound robot should be safely dangling.

Tuesday was a good night of work.  One of our best all season.  And Week 5 is usually when the team "hits the wall" and does less well.  


As is often the case after a great session, an off one.  More screwing around, less creative thought.  We actually set up a real target ( 8 feet 1 inch ) for the high ball shooter and find that it is spraying the balls about rather randomly.   

We did make a bit of progress on other fronts.  I rather like this 3D printed servo mount.  This servo is a big boy, one of two that keeps "gates" in place so we don't drop the gear when we get jostled in transit.  Like most everything else we build it is seriously over engineered.  Probably has twice as much plastic in it than what it actually needs.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Tree Shaped Tombstones - The Woodmen's Circle

Most Tree Shaped Tombstones are not related to the several fraternal organizations collectively called "Woodmen".  But some certainly are. When you see one of this shape, medium height with a fork at the top, you can from a distance predict that this will be an "Official" one. There is usually a Woodman logo at the fork just as you see here.

But this one is an oddity.  It is from a member of The Woodmen Circle.

That was the Ladies Auxiliary of the Woodmen.

We ran across this rather nice specimen in Oshkosh Wisconsin.

The Woodmen Circle was the auxiliary of the Woodmen of the World starting in the 1890s. The main organization still exists but the Circle was incorporated into the Woodmen in 1965. There must have been a very active local chapter - they were called Groves by the way - as a second monument of similar form but lesser preservation was nearby.

The internet being what it is there is certainly some information on the Woodmen Circle to be found out there but it is buried deep under a large amount of trashy info on a purportedly haunted site in Texas that was once a retirement home and orphanage.  From its name it was clearly founded by this worthy organization and deserves better than to be tromped all over by paranormal buffs with dubious ghost detecting equipment.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Robotics Freebies

At FIRST Robotics tournaments it is common to have little give away items in your pit area. Buttons are the most common.  But I have seen other things.  Chap stick with a team logo on it was a nice touch.  A team from Hawaii that came to a tournament in Duluth and brought custom Ice Scrapers with their logo was the weirdest one I remember, but darn it all if it did not snow and people found them useful.

Last year we had a small number of buttons to give out.  As they were scarce items they were much in demand.

This year the team has looked at different things.  But at this point the leading contender happened by accident.

80/20 is a pre-fab aluminum product that is very handy for bolting things together.  It looks like this:

Now, one of our kids at the end of a long day managed to cut some stock a quarter inch too long.  No problem, it is better than cutting it too short.  But when he went to slice off the extra length it created a very interesting and complicated bit of metal.  It looked like jewelry.

So, just 3D print a plastic piece with our team number you have....well I would say it is art. And technology too.

The back view:

And the front:

Of course they still have a lot to do on this concept.  Black does not show up as well as it might, so other colors should be tried.  And a pin of some kind needs to be attached to it.

Here is Version 2.0

I think the labor involved will be such that supply and demand will again be mis-matched and the team swag from 5826 will be much in demand two years running.

Oh, and here's version 3.0.  New logo.  And using thin slices of a different size of 80/20 that we got for free and won't be using in this year's design.

Monday, February 6, 2017

FIRST Robotics 2017 - Build Season Week Four

The count down on the daily work board grows more urgent.  We are now two thirds of the way through the build season.

The first half of the week was somewhat concerning.  Oh, we had all the major systems ready to put together, but integrating them, making the control systems plausible, mounting things securely....these are the things that should happen in a smooth and organized fashion.  And were not.  So I had to push things a bit.  It's best to have a build team that smoothly and efficiently goes about its work.  But when somebody needs to establish priorities,  and to put tasks in a logical order, that somebody tends to be me.  (Remember that we are still a very young team, in future seasons I am going to take several steps back).

The nice thing about massive projects is that when work stalls on Big Stuff you can always fall back on Small Stuff.  And having a competition and a practice machine to build means you can have crews working on both.  Best quality parts and work for the A Machine, OK to lean a bit on things with the B Machine.

As usual, pictures of the week.

This was end of the day Thursday.  Practice machine in the foreground.  We have the frame done and the floor in place. We need to finish and mount the winch/rope grabber, all parts of same on display here.  The temporary electronics will come off on Saturday and the competition version go on.  Then we practice drive and finish the competition robot which is alongside.  We have made a number of educational minor mistakes on this build...and will do the second robot with the benefit of this experience.  

 A cryptic note from the software team.  It is written on plywood.

I continue to be skeptical regards a high ball shooter.  But if they are going to play around with this they had at least better have a target.  Our shop trash can set on our robot cart and three plastic tubs is about right for the competition dimensions.

Moment of truth I guess.  We had drive system ready to go, had gear capture and release systems functional, had the winch and rope grabber installed.  Lots of hands mounting switches and lights, working on software tweaks, getting the camera to rotate..

Sigh.  Although it drives well and most things work we seem to have burned out the winch motor with our initial test.  Still time to adapt the coupling and get that working...or to go to plan B.  This would be a terrible problem to discover in week 6, and a bad one in week 5.  But as an end of week 4 learning opportunity its OK.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Fritz Diefenthaler

It does not take much of a clue to put me on the trail of a brewery cave.  While perusing microfilm of old newspapers from La Crosse Wisconsin I ran across this:

"Out on the South Salem Road (present Highway 16) there was a brewery built in the coulee opposite the Keppel farm.  Some time in the late 1850's a man name Diefenthaler operated it."

The article says little more, indicating that the dates were unclear.  It did mention that there was a pavillion, a dance hall and an excavated storage cave.

That was plenty to get me looking.  Highway 16 of course still exists.  On line plat maps from the era of the newspaper article showed a property in the name of Keppel.  Switching over to Google Earth I could see a valley on the far side of the highway, with  a nice bluff and a little stream.  It had to be the place.

And it was.

From the outside looking in:

And the inside looking out.  Notice the doorway on the left.  This was clogged with dirt and seemed to be not a side tunnel, but a doorway from the brewery, the foundations of which were adjacent.

It is not a very big cave.  As you can see it has some old furniture in it.  Unwisely these occasional inhabitants have been lighting fires inside. This is a bad idea from several perspectives.  Not only is there danger of weakening the roof, the ventilation in caves is somewhat suspect and carbon monoxide poisonings have been known to tragically occur.

A peculiar feature of this cave is that there are no vent holes in the roof.  But there are what appear to be four vent holes in the sides of the cave.  Notice that leaves have fallen down from above.

Once this cave was protected by heavy iron gates, the hinges of which are still in place. Now it is open, and with the caution mentioned above, there does not appear to be any problem visiting it.  If you are feeling a bit lazy and don't think I have supplied enough clues I can add that it is in a nature preserve and near an abandoned tavern, one that I suspect is on the site of Mr. Diefenthaler's long ago dance hall and pavilion.

I will add further details as I find them, but so far they are sketchy.  I have rough dates of 1856 until some time in the 1870s.  The name Diefenthaler was still around the area in the later 1800's, with that generation seemingly involved in the related business of selling grain.
12/24/2018  As promised, an update albeit one with only minor details.

After seeing the Michel's brewery cave a mile or two away I noted sufficient similarities to suspect that perhaps the Michels brothers - builders by trade - created the Diefenthaler cave.

Also I ran across a newspaper article from 1932 that quotes an Anton Keppel reminiscing about the brewery.  He says his father worked there and that the establishment used very antiquated machinery.  Also that it was out of business by 1870. 

Finally, I have recently heard that the convenient parking area near the cave now has signage for Customers only.  The cave proper still seems to be on public land.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Back in School - Spring Semester

I rather enjoyed my Fall Semester at the local Tech school.  Machining class proved to be more challenging and more satisfying than I predicted.  And the Solidworks class was quite fun.  I am sufficiently the master of assorted low level tricks in this software now to allow me to teach kids on the FIRST team. One of our students in particular has taken to it quickly and was generating designs for 3D printed parts after about an hour of practice.  I think I shall Proclaim him our Official Widgeteer.

Recognizing that the robotics season and spring travels would cut into class time I am scaling it back this time around.  I am only taking Basic Pneumatics.  And in an "Open Lab" format.

It's a different way to study.  All the information is available on line in an interesting interactive format.  You can just click into existence the cylinders, valves and regulators needed to complete a circuit.  Later of course you go into the lab and do it for real.

This year's FIRST robot will not - barring a late emergency redesign - have any pneumatics on it, so this is just for my own interest and for future smartsies.  

I can do much of my school work in pajamas at 5am.  I can make my annual trip overseas in May and for all I know continue my class via smart phone while sitting in ancient Roman ruins. 

It's rather nice and I think a sensible adaptation to the reality that many Tech students are also working and raising a family concurrently.  

My previous classes have also been more hands on than lecture based but this goes further.  

Good so far, but with everything automated where am I going to get hand graded papers to stick on the refrigerator?